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Fighting Words: Weapon-Derived Phrases

By Christine Ammer
8/1/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Our lexicographer considers some widespread words and phrases derived from weaponry.

From earliest times to the present, weaponry has given us numerous expressions that appear in everyday speech. Take, for example, All early firearms were loaded from the muzzle by first pouring powder into place and then ramming a bullet on top of the powder. Consequently, a soldier double-barreled. could fire only a single shot and then had to reload, a drawback in battle. One way of overcoming this considerable handicap was to add another barrel, and some gunsmiths went so far as to make six-or seven-barreled pistols. More common, however, was the double-barreled weapon.

In speech, the adjective double-barreled has come to designate anything serving a dual purpose or having two aspects or two parts. Thus we can “give the baby a double-barreled name, in memory of both her grandmothers,” or “launch a double-barreled attack on an opponent,” as the New York Times reported on January 6, 2008, when describing Barack Obama and John Edwards ganging up on Hillary Clinton in a candidates’ debate. Alternatively, to give someone a hard time, we may let him have it with both barrels.

An expression with a much longer history is parting shot, for having the last word in an argument as one departs. Most authorities believe the term is a corruption of Parthian shot, alluding to a military practice of the ancient Parthians, who were renowned archers and horsemen. When in flight, either actually retreating or just luring the enemy on, they would turn and fire arrows at their pursuers. Samuel Butler alluded to it in his poem “Hudibras” (1678): “You wound, like Parthians, while you fly/And kill with a retreating eye.”

A more general expression is to be up in arms, now meaning to be openly rebellious or outraged. In the sixteenth century, it simply meant to engage in combat against an enemy, but by about 1700 it was being used figuratively, as it is today: “The teachers all were up in arms about the principal’s dismissal.”

A great many idioms have come to us from guns and ammunition. Indeed, the word ammunition itself, a sixteenth-century corruption of munitions, was first used for all military stores and then specifically for ordnance. It has long been used figuratively, as in “This preacher tends to use the Ten Commandments as ammunition to persuade parishioners to contribute more to the church.”

The noun cartridge came from the Italian carta, a fifteenth-century name for the paper then in common use. Similar to cardboard, it was used to wrap costly items and then, rolled into a cartoccio, as a container for gunpowder. By the mid-seventeenth century, a bullet or shot was usually included with each dose of powder, and the modern ballistic cartridge works in just that way. Today similar devices, also called cartridges, are used to hold the ink of a ballpoint pen or computer printer, camera film, recording tape, and other items where the convenience of inserting an entire cartridge replaced more cumbersome methods (such as filling a fountain pen).

A number of idioms concern the efficiency (or lack of it) of firearms, and the behavior of troops facing fire. To misfire originally described a firearm failing to go off and has been used figuratively since the mid-nineteenth century to mean failing to achieve an anticipated result. For example, “Recycling plastic containers was supposed to save the town a lot of money, but it misfired.”

Troops who did not conceal themselves could draw fire from the enemy, with dangerous consequences. Used figuratively, the term means simply to attract criticism, as in “Management’s plan to lay off workers will undoubtedly draw fire from the union.”

To be under fire once meant only to be within range of enemy guns. Today the figurative sense is milder, meaning to be criticized or held responsible: “If you don’t file your taxes on time, you risk coming under fire from the IRS.”

On the other hand, to most of us an IRS audit represents a powerful weapon, as the agency may well outgun us, a seventeenth-century term meaning to exceed in firepower and soon transferred to mean overwhelm or outdo.

A World War I term no longer heard often is Big Bertha, a name invented by the French for a German long-range cannon used to shell Paris from a range of seventy-five miles for four long months in 1918. The name was then transferred to a large, overweight woman, and later to a metal driver larger than the normal golf club, with great range but relatively poor accuracy.

Since the first half of the nineteenth century, the expression big gun has been slang for an important, influential person, and in the early 1900s the term big shot began to be used in the same way. The allusion to firearms is obvious, but the precise origin has been lost.

Not so with go ballistic, originally used for a guided missile going out of control. In the 1980s, it was transferred to the civilian vocabulary, meaning to instantly become furious or irrational. The term made national headlines when a postal worker went berserk and killed a number of fellow employees. It continues to be used in less dire circumstances, such as “If we don’t get that report done on time, Harry will go ballistic.”

 

Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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